40 Years Of The Porsche 917; The car described as the "Greatest Racing Car in History" celebrates its 40th birthday
ATLANTA - March 9, 2009 - Forty years ago, on March 13, 1969 at the Geneva International Motor Show, today's Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche unveiled a car that would exceed its creator's wildest dreams, and develop into one of the most iconic race cars of all time: The Porsche 917.
Project 917 began in June 1968 in response to an edict from the international motor sports authority, known as the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA). They had announced a class for "homologated sports cars" with up to a five-liter engine capacity and a minimum weight of 800 kilograms (1760 pounds).
Under the supervision of Porsche family member and gifted engineer Ferdinand Piech, the FIA- stipulated minimum 25 units of the new race car were to be completed by April 1969 so that the 917 could race during the 1969 international season. Initially, Porsche had built six cars and had "all the bits and pieces to build 19 more for the homologation," according to Rico Steinemann, Porsche's Racing Manager at the time, "the FIA then decided, no!" All 25 cars would have to be built. As all of the racing department's resources were being utilized, the workers to build the cars would have to come from elsewhere.
"We put together apprentices, messenger boys, bookkeepers, office people and secretaries," remembered Steinemann years later. "Just enough people, taught just enough to put together 25 cars!"
The original 25 "Secretary Cars," as they came to be called, passed the FIA inspection with flying colors, despite the fact they would barely run on the street, let alone a race track. After the inspection, all but two of the cars were completely disassembled and rebuilt by the factory's race team mechanics.
The engine of the 917 was also unique. While the 917 retained Porsche's traditional horizontally opposed, air-cooled "boxer-style" engine configuration, the 4.5 liter, 520 HP 12-cylinder engine was bigger than any engine Porsche had built until that time.
The frame, designed more for durability than lightweight was constructed of TIG-welded aluminum tubing (later switched to magnesium), while the fiberglass re-enforced resin bodywork weighed in at a total of 93 pounds.
The 917 shape underwent constant evolution, with Porsche engineers developing different body configurations to best meet the demands of the varied circuits on the World Championship calendar. In the late 60's and early 70's, the World Championship of Makes visited four different continents, all sporting many different styles of racetrack. The so-called short-tail, or "Kurzheck" bodywork was designed for high downforce tracks, such as Watkins Glen and Brands Hatch, while the original "Langheck" long-tail bodywork was further developed to optimize straight-line speed and stability on the long, ultra-high-speed tracks like Le Mans, with its 3.5 mile long Mulsanne Straight. The ultimate development of the 917 came with the open 917 Spyders, which later dominated both the CanAm and Interseries circuits.
Success was not immediate for the 917. After initially dropping out of its first three races due to technical problems, the 917 success story, as we know it, began in August 1969 at a 1,000-kilometer race at the Osterreichring with a victory by Jo Siffert and Kurt Ahrens.
Despite Piech's desire that Porsche "to be the best. Everywhere." the delays and lack of development time prevented the 917 from winning the championship in 1969. But by the end of the 1970 race season, Porsche demonstrated the superiority of the 917 and the 908/03 models by taking the World Championship of Makes by winning nine of ten possible victories.
This series of victories began with the Daytona 24 Hours and continued at Brands Hatch, Monza, Spa, the Nurburgring Nordschleife, the Targa Florio, Watkins Glen 6-Hour and at the Osterreichring. However, the season's high point was the long-desired overall win at the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race, a trophy that Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood brought home to Zuffenhausen on June 14, 1970. The number 23, 917K short-tail model, painted in the red and white colors of Porsche Salzburg, successfully fought off the combined factory efforts of Ferrari, Matra and Lola while battling horrible weather conditions during the race.
The 1971 season was once again dominated by the 917, as Porsche defended their World Championship of Makes crown by winning eight out of the ten races on the schedule. And, for the second year running, a Porsche 917 was victorious at the Le Mans 24-Hour race - this time with Gijs van Lennep and Dr. Helmut Marko driving, who set world records with an average speed of 222 km/h (137.6 mph) and a total of 5,335 kilometers (3,107.7 miles) driven, records that still stand today. The 917 long-tail coupe also set another record in 1971: Car number 21 turned in the highest speed ever recorded on the Mulsanne Straight of 387 kilometers per hour (240 mph).
The 1971 race also marked the debut of one of the most fabled iterations of the 917. A cross between the short-tail and the long-tail models produced the 917/20. The car was distinguished by its wide cross section and its striking pink color. Although the car, nicknamed "The Pink Pig", dropped out halfway through the race, its unusual paint scheme made it one of the most famous Porsche models ever, joining the 1970's "Hippie Car" as a Porsche Racing classic.
When the European FIA regulation for "5-liter sports cars" expired at the end of the 1971 season, Porsche decided to enter the Sports Car Club of America's Canadian American Challenge Cup (CanAm). There had been exploratory efforts in the CanAm as early as 1969, but this was the first championship-level effort from PAG. Tony Dean, driving his own independently entered 908/2 took a surprise rain-soaked win at the Road Atlanta CanAm in 1970.
After many months of testing and development in Weissach done in conjunction with Penske Racing's legendary driver and engineer, Mark Donohue, the 917/10 made its CanAm debut in June of 1972. Now turbocharged, the 12-cylinder boxer engine pumped out an incredible 1,000 horsepower but an early season testing accident caused Donohue to sit out most of the season. His replacement, George Follmer went on to dominate the series and won victories at Road Atlanta, Mid Ohio, Elkhart Lake, Laguna Seca and Riverside, thus clinching the 1972 CanAm championship and virtually chasing the formerly invincible Team McLaren from the series.
For an encore, Porsche and Penske went to work on its 1973 challenger, the 917/30. In what turned into the ultimate development of the 917 platform, and with the engine, producing 1,200 horsepower it was the class of the field at every race. The superiority of the car, driven by Mark Donohue, was so obvious that the CanAm series regulations were changed at season's end in order to prohibit the 917/30 from competing in 1974. The 917/30 did live on in the Interserie series in Europe, where Herbert Mueller won the championship in 1974 and 1975. Also in 1975, at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, Donohue set the World Closed Course Speed Record driving the Penske 917/30 at an average speed of 221.120 mph.
As is typical of Porsche, the technologies developed during the racing career of the 917 were successfully transferred to its road cars; one of the most obvious examples is the original 911 Turbo, and why Porsche is synonymous with performance, efficiency and engineering excellence.
The reputation of the 917 is legendary. When 50 international motor sports experts from the famous British trade magazine "Motor Sport" were asked to name the "greatest racing car in history" they cited the Porsche 917. Overall, Porsche built 65 units of the 917: 44 sports cars as short-tail and long-tail coupes, two PA Spyders as well as 19 sports cars as CanAm and Interseries Spyders with up to 1,400 HP turbo engines.
Today, seven of the most important 917 models - among them the Le Mans-winning cars from 1970 and 1971 and the 917/30 CanAm Spyder - are currently on exhibit in the new Porsche Museum in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen. Most of the other 917s are in the hands of proud collectors around the world, and have been seen - and heard - at the most prestigious vintage events, including Goodwood, Amelia Island, Monterey Historics, and Porsche's three Rennsport Reunions in the U.S. in 2001, 2004 and 2007. Porsche Motorsport North America, the racing arm of Porsche in the U.S., services, restores, rebuilds and maintains many of these 917s for collectors at its shop in Santa Ana, California.